We came as four but left one by one. We were replacements. We were girls.
Hi, New Girl.
Hi, New Girl Two.
This was the Cambodia Daily. This was news. We’d come to replace a dead girl. Or we’d come to replace three boys and a girl. (Always, it’s the girl who dies.) The four of us, we knew nothing, or we knew not to ask. We knew the headline from the local paper: Foreign Reporter Dead. We heard whispers about drugs, about the three boys in the room—fired or fled, we didn’t know. We looked at each other and wondered who was who: who were the boys, the dead girl, the ghost? Secretly, we all thought she was us.
We huddled around desks, elbows touching. We got shouted at. We got stares. We did everything wrong. On the street, we got offers. Lady, tuk-tuk? Smoke-smoke? Killing Fields? At the Killing Fields, we walked like sleepwalkers among the skulls—some smashed, some whole. The mud retched up a piece of cloth, and we gasped. We’d believe anything: the dead coming up out of the ground. We all thought she was us. When the king died that October, we ran outside to see his face in the moon.
She died with her head tilted back. We knew her name. We knew not to ask. We learned Khmer from the local news. One of our first words: Bauk. Gang rape. It was always in the paper: three boys and a girl. Or maybe four boys, five. It happened all the time. We were told not to point at the moon: Bad luck. It happened all the time.
Which of us was the ghost? We crashed our motorcycles. We got into scrapes. We were too pretty or we were not pretty enough. We were too quiet. Too loud. We laughed at jokes—Who put the hyphen in rape-murder?—then cried in the bathroom. It happened all the time. We talked to the dead girl’s ghost.
They fell in love with us. They hated us. We were sleeping with our bosses, our sources. We were sleeping with men from the other paper. We were probably sleeping with each other. They shouted. They stormed off and forgot to pay their tabs. We talked to the dead girl’s ghost. Some of us fell in love with the ones who shouted most.
We called to report gossip. We called to ask what kind of mood he was in. At bars, we sat on the same stool, then shouted that we were not the same person. But can I just point out that you’re sitting on top of each other right now? We debated the coming coup, jumped at dark spots scuttling across the floor. We fell in love with the ones who shouted most. The dead girl understood.
We kissed in tuk-tuks and drove through floods. We made human pyramids in bars. We lost all our money at the Chinese casino, then stumbled home drunk to make instant noodles at 3am. The dead girl understood. We passed out in each other’s beds whispering things we wouldn’t remember.
They talked about us. Who was pretty. Who was fat. Who dressed like a ladyboy. Whose ass had that thing that made you want to look. We stayed late. We threw up in the bathroom. We never once called in sick. They called stories sexy and we hated it. They called stories sexy and we did it too. We said things we wouldn’t remember. In the morning, we woke up hung over.
We got in with the right tuk-tuk drivers. We got into the right girly bars. We spotted license plates, eavesdropped in bars. We got invited to private islands. We got our fortunes told. In the morning, we woke up hung over. We were told we’d live a long time.
We slept with everyone. We slept with no one. We ignored messages and cried in the bathroom. We slept with someone finally just to prove that we could. We were told we’d live a long time. When he got up to walk through the kitchen, we pictured him grabbing a knife.
We fought about stories. We fought all the time. We fought about foreign pedophiles, about genocide. We said it would never happen at home. We said it happened all the time. We were too mad to leave together, then got robbed alone on the street: two men in the dark, and the dark was a knife. We screamed, but it didn’t sound like our voice.
For weeks, we were bored. We counted murders, took bets on lightning strikes. Then one day we saw a man get shot dead right in front of us. We crouched behind the car while the shooters debated. We couldn’t breathe. We couldn’t remember the things we were supposed to remember. We couldn’t remember our voice.
We didn’t tell each other everything. We realized one day that we’d stopped. Instead, we sat at bars and embellished stories. Made up words. Deathpat is like sexpat except you come here to shoot up and die. We wondered if we were a kind of deathpat. Maybe everyone here is a kind of deathpat. We were told not to stay too long. We were told to stay away from cocaine. We stayed two years, and we were still debating the coming coup. We wondered if all this would always seem real—already there were things we forgot.
We heard the story of the dead girl finally, but it wasn’t the one we’d thought. Stupid girl. Everyone knows the coke here is all heroin. We still believed we were her—the dead girl, the ghost—though now we sometimes thought we might live. Most of the people who’d known her had gone. Her name came up less. We talked to her now and then, but more often we forgot. We were told we’d live a long time.
We vowed to stop drinking or we didn’t. We went to meetings or we didn’t. We vowed to live our lives one day at a time. We ran. We bargained. We prayed. We prayed sick in our beds in the middle of the night. Let me live and I swear I won’t do this anymore. We prayed not to be too quiet. Too loud. We stayed silent or we screamed at the top of our lungs. It never saved us or it did.
We told ourselves it was all right not to wear a helmet—something about the night in our hair, something about the tree blossoms hung with stars. We told ourselves no one had ever lived a life like this. We told ourselves we were bored. We told ourselves it was our voice, our scream—it was the silence that had belonged to someone else. It never saved us or it did. We told ourselves we’d live a long time.